And Now, The Conclusion ... Part 92
Cops in Black & White by Jerry Bledsoe, Part 92
January 28, 2010
Just a week from now, four years will have passed since I innocently set off down a path that turned out to be far longer, more arduous and even dangerous than I ever could have imagined. That was when I told a friend who'd spoken with David Wray, Greensboro's ousted and demonized police chief, that I'd like to talk to Wray, too.
Wray, who is white, had been branded a racist in the news media, and the city had been plastered with posters proclaiming him a "grand wizard" in the Ku Klux Klan. The story that the public was being fed about him and the Greensboro Police Department seemed utterly implausible to me. I suspected that the truth was far different. And indeed that turned out to be the case.
I'd never met Wray and knew nothing more about him than what I'd read in newspaper reports. I did know a little about the Greensboro Police Department.
In 1967, 14 years before Wray joined the department, I was the police reporter for the Greensboro Daily News.
I became acquainted with Paul Calhoun, the city's longest serving chief, who was white, as well as with one of his assistant chiefs, "Sticky" Burch, who later became sheriff of Guilford County. Burch, too, is white. After that I got to know Sylvester Daughtry, Greensboro's first black chief and the most popular by far. I liked them all and considered them to be decent and honorable men.
And yet, oddly, at this moment, as I write the last installment of this lengthy and long-running series, it's not these chiefs who are foremost in my mind. It's not even Wray, another decent and honorable chief, who was falsely accused and treated reprehensibly by the city and the news media.
It's a chief I'd never heard of before I chose this exhausting and often disgusting path in search of truth and understanding.
His name is Jeter Williamson. He was white, and he is considered to be the father of the modern Greensboro Police Department, although I doubt that he'd want to claim its parentage now. It was Williamson who set the department on a path to become one of the most professional and best-run law enforcement agencies in the South, a model for other departments.
When Williamson became chief in 1951, the department was corrupt, poorly led, ill-trained and inept. Over a period of five years, he cleaned it up, turned it around, and built it into a new entity, honest and effective. Williamson believed in creating leadership from within, and because of that, promoting the chief from inside the department became a standard that lasted for nearly half a century. It gave incentive to ambitious commanders and stability to the department.
It was the breaking of that tradition that led eventually to the fiasco that consumed Wray and has dominated the Police Department for nearly five years, leaving it in shambles, a laughingstock for other law enforcement agencies.
That tradition was broken by a single act of cowardice on the part of former City Manager Ed Kitchen, who is white.
In November 1997, Sylvester Daughtry announced that he would retire at the end of January after more than 29 years with the department, 11 as chief. It was expected that Deputy Chief Dave Williams, who was white and had been with the department for 34 years, would be the next chief. I later came to know Williams, too, and considered him a fine and honorable man. He, like many retired officers, was distraught about what happened to David Wray and to the Police Department in recent years. He died last February after a long and valiant bout with cancer.
At the time of Daughtry's announcement, Kitchen said that his intention was to name a new chief from within. But that changed after a large group of black officers claimed at a public meeting that they were victims of racial discrimination and a "good-old-boy" system in a department that for 11 years had been directed by a black chief but one who supported high standards.
Remarkably, a reporter for the News & Record looked into the black officers' complaints and determined that they were not backed by facts. Many of these officers were the same ones who later brought down David Wray with false claims of racial targeting by "secret police." In the latter instance, however, the News & Record was the purveyor and supporter of the falsehoods that allowed it to happen.
The black officers especially didn't want Dave Williams to be chief, because in 1982 he had presided over two simultaneous investigations of 13 officers who became involved in drug scandals, 10 of them black. Five were fired and six more resigned. Some of the black officers in the scandals were represented by Joe Williams, a lawyer who wields immense power in politics, government and the justice system. Williams, who is black, is a leader of the Simkins PAC, which directs the black vote in Greensboro and Guilford County. He can make the difference in who gets to be mayor, a councilmember, a judge or district attorney. He was a key figure in bringing down Wray and setting the Police Department on a disastrous course.
Black officers wanted a black chief after Daughtry's departure, and their public cries of discrimination, although shown not to be true, prompted Kitchen to break the longstanding tradition set by Jeter Williamson. He brought in a black chief from the police department in Washington, DC a department rife with corruption and mismanagement. That was Robert White.
Some retired commanders publicly decried Kitchen's decision. It was called absurd and a slap in the face of Dave Williams and chiefs going back to Jeter Williamson.
In a letter to the editor of the News & Record, retired Public Safety Director Hewitt Lovelace, who was white, pointed out that the Greensboro Police Department had a higher rating and better reputation than the Washington department, where White had been a leader.
"Is Greensboro going to bring him up to standards," Lovelace asked, "or is he going to bring Greensboro down to Washington standards?"
The answer to that question would be awhile in coming, but it turned out to be the one that Lovelace and many others feared.
White's big-city ideas about policing didn't work in Greensboro, and he allowed standards to deteriorate radically. Under White, officers were allowed to work off duty at clubs known to be run by drug dealers. Black officers were allowed to work for an unlicensed security company while wearing police uniforms, violations of North Carolina law for which nobody was held accountable.
White quickly advanced an officer he favored, James Hinson, three ranks to lieutenant and allowed him to do much as he pleased. Hinson, one of the officers who worked for the illegal security company, devoted himself to community projects designed to gain favorable press attention for himself and the chief. These projects were short in substance and long on show. None were sustainable and all disappeared quickly after the newspaper articles and TV broadcasts faded from memory.
In discussing White's four-and-a-half years as chief, retired Capt. Rick Ball, who is white, told me this: "In the Greensboro Police Department, traditionally, we had certain things that were sacred. When I came to the department, I was told, 'Don't ever lie. They'll fire you.' All of a sudden telling a lie wasn't a big deal. We had a reverse in the values we held."
Even Ed Kitchen seemed to realize that he'd made a mistake. Early in 2003, White left to become chief in Louisville, Kentucky. At the end of July Kitchen appointed Wray as chief and told him that one of his priorities was to restore integrity to the department. Wray would find internal opposition to that goal at almost every turn.
At the time Wray became chief, James Hinson had been under investigation for nearly nine months after a federal drug task force found his telephone numbers in the safe and wallet of international cocaine cartel leader Elton Turnbull. Hinson had sold a house to Turnbull and they had also shared as mistress a stripper who worked for Turnbull. Chief White, Hinson's friend, had approved that investigation.
Wray realized he was going to have a problem with Hinson and it wasn't long in developing. He wanted Hinson to stop showboating for the media and get back to policing. Hinson resented that.
Hinson had a history of claiming racism when things didn't go his way in the department, and in the fall of 2004 he began accusing commanders and others of racism because he wasn't getting all of the off-duty work for city sponsored events that he wanted, work that paid time-and-a-half. The result was a confrontation between Wray and Hinson that ended with Hinson agreeing to change his attitude and become part of the team.
Within weeks, however, Hinson was back to his old ways. Two incidents that occurred in early spring 2005 after Hinson had started a new public project without Wray's knowledge this one supposedly to help prostitutes prompted a new investigation of Hinson. That investigation soon showed that Hinson was working off-duty jobs at private businesses on duty, and that he frequently was out of his assigned district. He spent time at a UNCG building where his cleaning company had a contract, as well as at the residence of a girlfriend, among other places that had nothing to do with his duties.
Late in the evening of June 3, while apparently watching a movie at a theater out of his district while on duty, Hinson learned from black officers working off duty at the theater that he was under surveillance and found a tracker on his police vehicle. He angrily demanded that any investigation of him be ended. When that didn't happen, Joe Williams intervened on behalf of Hinson. A few days later, Williams went public in the News & Record with false claims that Hinson and other black officers had been targeted by secret police only because of race. That created a crisis for the Police Department that still hasn't gone away.
This crisis produced a phenomenon in the Police Department and city management that has proved detrimental not only to both, but to the city as well.
On Dec. 31, 2009, in a column in The Wall Street Journal, Peggy Noonan wrote of her concerns about what she called the "most worrying trend" of the past decade.
"So many great American institutions institutions that every day help hold us together acted as if they had forgotten their mission, forgotten what they were about, what their role and purpose was, what they existed to do," she wrote. "You, as you read, can probably think of an institution that has forgotten its reason for being. Maybe it's the one you're part of."
Surely, many people who had been part of the Greensboro Police Department could identify with that, for it is an apt description of what happened in that once distinguished organization as a consequence of Hinson's actions. In the face of a crisis created on lies, many people in the Police Department and city management thought first of self and not of the Police Department and its vital mission. And they seized upon the situation for their own purposes.
At the beginning of the crisis, the command staff was divided by those who had opposed Wray's selection as chief and those who supported him. Some who opposed him saw this as a chance to retaliate for old grudges and petty grievances, and took vengeful actions.
Some, including members of the department's current top command staff, saw it as an opportunity to undermine Wray for their own advancement. Current Chief Tim Bellamy, who is black, was among those. Weeks before Wray's forced resignation on Jan. 9, 2006, he was undercutting Wray's authority by working on instructions of then-City Manager Mitch Johnson, instead of in service to Wray, to whom his allegiance was sworn and the chain of command required him to answer. Johnson is white.
A group of black officers, who had fallen under investigation for valid reasons, some of them before Wray became chief, sought vindication by blaming the fruits of their misbehavior on racial discrimination. A large group 40, including top commanders would seek to gain financially by filing lawsuits against the city based on fraudulent information conveniently provided by the city attorney and city manager even though most could show no personal connection.
Police union members saw the crisis as a means to overthrow the rotating shifts Wray had implemented. Many officers despised the new shifts, in part, Wray believed, because the shifts disrupted lucrative off-duty work assignments. The union first sided with Hinson, who as a lieutenant, couldn't belong to their group. After union members sought a meeting with Wray in which he agreed to take another look at the shifts to see how they might be improved, the union issued a statement of tepid support for Wray. Wray examined the shifts but decided not to alter them and the union began calling for his ouster.
But it was what Mitch Johnson had to gain from the crisis that opened the Police Department to Jeter Williamson's greatest fear about it.
In 1956, Williamson left the Police Department and joined the US Foreign Service. He served in Vietnam during the war, and after his retirement he moved back to Greensboro.
Williamson was proud of the Police Department he'd helped to create. He frequently wrote letters to the editor of the News & Record expressing concerns about any efforts that might compromise the department's integrity. He was particularly concerned about political intervention in the department.
In one of his letters to the editor, Williamson wrote this: "Anyone even remotely familiar with police administration knows that police effectiveness is diminished to a degree commensurate with the amount of political influence to which it is subjected."
It was Mitch Johnson, acting in his own interests, who opened the department to political intervention and control.
Shortly after the eruption of the crisis created by Hinson and Joe Williams, Ed Kitchen supported Wray in a message to the City Council. But Kitchen, who earlier had announced his retirement, had only six weeks left in office. When Kitchen left, Johnson, who was deputy manager, became acting manager. He wanted to be manager, but he needed public support for that.
Only days after Kitchen's departure, Joe Williams called on Johnson and City Attorney Linda Miles, who is white, to express his concerns about the supposed mistreatment of Hinson and other black officers. It couldn't have been lost on Johnson that Williams could supply the support he needed to become city manager.
Soon after that visit, Johnson arranged a confrontation between Wray, Williams and representatives of black officers, which Wray later described as an inquisition. Wray had his command staff on standby to investigate every claim made by Williams and the black officers, but Johnson didn't wait for the results and later ignored them. Instead, he launched investigations by city attorneys and a private security firm, Risk Management Associates (RMA) of Raleigh. Five weeks after the first investigation began, the City Council appointed Johnson as city manager.
The reports that resulted from Johnson's so-called investigations were laden with opinion, innuendo, misstatements, falsehoods and altered facts that were contrary to police records in possession of the investigators, a strong indication that their findings had been predetermined. But those findings suited Johnson's purposes. He used them first to publicly strip Wray of his ability to command, then to lock him out of his office and force his resignation. Johnson also reinstated James Hinson, who had been suspended for nearly seven months.
Two days after Wray's departure, Hinson and Joe Williams staged a press conference in front of police headquarters.
"Lt. Hinson is here today because he refused to let a few misguided individuals commandeer the Greensboro Police Department for their own misguided purposes," Williams told reporters. "Thanks to a courageous Lt. Hinson, city manager and city attorney, the good-old-boy network is gone forever."
Hinson said that he was delighted to be back at work and happy that the department was now under the direction of Tim Bellamy. "The truth will always come out in the end," he added.
The News & Record created a multi-media presentation about Hinson's return, portraying him as a triumphant hero, and featured it on the newspaper's website for a lengthy period.
The Greensboro Police Department had indeed been commandeered. With the help of Joe Williams, Mitch Johnson and Linda Miles, a group of black officers with records of dishonesty, personal misbehavior and association with drug dealers and prostitutes had carried out a coup d'etat, overthrowing a chief with an unblemished record of achievement and unwavering standards.
Ironically, Hinson was right in his comment about the truth. It eventually would come out. It just wouldn't be as he portrayed it.
Uncovering the truth was not part of Mitch Johnson's intentions. He quickly set in motion a campaign of deception that took on the nature of mass hysteria. This frenzy lasted for months, fanned by sensationalist reporting by Lorraine Ahearn in the News & Record, and by Frank Mickens on channel 2 news. Ahearn is white; Mickens black. The public was led to believe that a racist chief and his racist command staff had created a secret police unit that regularly showed a "black book" to prostitutes and drug dealers to frame innocent black officers and also spied on black community leaders and illicitly recorded them for purposes unknown.
These things were not true, and Tim Bellamy had to know that. He had the so-called black book in his possession. It clearly was a casebook for a legitimate investigation and he had no evidence that it had been used for any other purpose. All of that would be revealed later. Yet at the time he misled the public about it in statements to reporters and to the City Council in closed session.
Weeks later, somebody in the Police Department leaked information to Joe Williams that he and other black leaders had been under surveillance and illicitly recorded by the secret police. Outraged, Williams called Keith Holliday, who is white and was mayor at the time. Holliday called Bellamy. Bellamy began telephoning black leaders to tell them they had been recorded under Wray's direction and soon made a public announcement about it, setting off controversy and racial divisions in the community that have yet to be resolved.
However, later developments and an internal investigation would show that the Police Department had no recordings of black leaders and had conducted no surveillance of any. Bellamy and Criminal Investigations Commander Gary Hastings, who is white and now an assistant chief, knew that when Bellamy made his false announcement, and it is unlikely that they withheld the information from the city manager, with whom both were working closely at the time. Yet all three allowed the City Council and the public to believe an immensely damaging lie that the city has never publicly acknowledged.
All of this fit Mitch Johnson's goals. At the time, Johnson, Bellamy and Hastings were engaged in intense efforts to purge the Police Department of commanders who had been loyal to Wray and to send Wray, former Deputy Chief Randall Brady and other white officers involved in investigating black officers to prison. Councilmembers were led to believe that would happen.
To that end, the Police Department supplied SBI investigators with information that was less than accurate and complete.
At a court hearing in June 2008, Deputy Attorney General Jim Coman, who is white and whom I've known probably for 30 years, testified that at one point he was planning to indict four officers on serious charges. Although he didn't name them, those officers were Special Intelligence Detective Scott Sanders, whose racial designation is Pacific Islander, and three white Vice and Narcotics Division detectives Brian Williamson, James Armstrong and Cassie Campsey all of whom were involved in a legitimate investigation that sprang from a major federal drug task force.
Early in my reporting on this project, I talked frequently with Coman, but at the time he didn't tell me about any plan to indict these officers. I didn't learn about it until the court hearing. We did discuss the incident from which the indictments would have come. I realized that Coman didn't have full information and gave him what I had.
"The information that Jerry gave me clarified a situation and provided information that the agents had not been given," Coman testified. "But they were able to verify what Jerry had talked about with me. And as a result, I made a decision that justice would not be served by pursuing an indictment."
This raises a question. The Police Department had all the information that I had about this incident, and more, including recordings that I still have not heard. In their eagerness to gain indictments to support the falsehoods that city leaders had embraced, did Bellamy and Hastings withhold information from the SBI to allow the arrests of innocent detectives?
Coman did eventually bring charges against two officers, Scott Sanders and his sergeant, Tom Fox, who is white, but those charges had nothing to do with this incident, or with race and the wild charges that wracked Greensboro in the first half of 2006. In the only criminal trial that resulted, Sanders was acquitted of illegally accessing a US government-owned laptop computer that had been loaned to an officer who fell under investigation. During the trial, evidence disclosed that Hastings had done the same thing in investigating Wray and the other officers, but Hastings faced no charges. After the verdict, Coman dropped charges of obstructing justice against Sanders and Fox in another matter.
Mayor Keith Holliday and the City Council unanimously accepted without question all of the falsehoods about Wray and the Police Department that were being fed to them in the frenzied first half of 2006, and most remained staunch defenders of Mitch Johnson, even after contradicting facts began to emerge in this series in the fall of that year, facts that caused public doubt to build.
"Yes! Yes! Yes!" Holliday responded in October of that year when William Hammer, the publisher of The Rhino Times, asked if he still had 100 percent confidence in the city manager. "And if you knew what I know, you would know why we have confidence in Mitch Johnson and the steps he has taken."
Holliday said that a lot of people would have "mud on their faces" when the truth came out, but he never would say what he knew that would change the minds of others if it became known.
And investigation after investigation by the FBI (the results of which Holliday and Johnson attempted to keep hidden), the SBI, the Police Department's Internal Affairs Unit, and the US Department of Justice never produced any evidence of Johnson's claims that secret police targeted black officers because of race and that black books were used in attempts to frame innocent black officers. Neither did they find that black community leaders had been recorded and spied upon for sinister purposes.
Holliday has yet to point out those with mud on their faces.
In the end, it all amounted to nothing more than a travesty against truth, as well as honest and diligent officers, and the integrity of the Police Department.
The damage from Mitch Johnson's actions all based in falsehoods and fully supported by Holliday and councilmembers never can be undone.
Wray's police career was destroyed, his reputation tarnished, his future pension greatly diminished. He was sued repeatedly by black officers. He remained unemployed for more than two years while legal fees from the civil suits amounted to scores of thousands of dollars, fees the city is required to pay but has refused to. Officers who served under Wray have suffered similarly, particularly Scott Sanders and Tom Fox.
But the greater damage has been to the Police Department itself.
It now bears little resemblance to the model department created by Jeter Williamson and built by other hardworking chiefs, the model department Wray was attempting to restore.
The current department is bereft of direction, with inept leadership at the top, the result of purging more able and experienced officers.
It is a department so racially polarized that it is in effect two. One is black, the other mostly white. Each has different standards and expectations. Racial discrimination against non-black employees in promotions and job assignments is expected and can be documented. Incompetence not only is tolerated but has been rewarded with promotions to supervisory positions.
It's a department where association with prostitutes, drug dealers and other criminals is considered to be insignificant, and where misbehavior often is covered up by other officers.
Lying is of no consequence in this department and has been practiced even by top commanders, including the chief. When lying is acceptable for police officers, the public has to wonder if officers also are lying in court, where stakes are high, to achieve the ends they desire. Defense lawyers would have a heyday if some officers ever were required to testify.
These matters are only part of the corruption that is eating away at the department's core. Tim Bellamy, city management, some councilmembers, and the political machines that have great influence from behind the scenes in Greensboro simply pretend that the corruption doesn't exist, because to deal with it would bring outcries of indignation and stir unbearable turmoil. But corruption ignored only grows. Eventually it will create more scandal, even less public trust in the Police Department and the justice system, and further stain Greensboro's reputation.
Political influence in the modern Greensboro Police Department has never been greater or more obvious than it is now.
Confidential police information and documents have been passed to political groups without any questions raised within the department. Certain officers have felt free to bypass the chain of command and take their grievances directly to political groups which support them, no matter their behavior, and these officers have done so with impunity. Political groups have been allowed to determine whether an officer could be fired and who could be assigned or removed from positions in the department.
When these influences are allowed, the public has to question whether political groups and powerful individuals also have the ability to influence the outcomes of investigations, or even to keep investigations from being conducted.
After Robert White's resignation in 2003, Jeter Williamson, who knew the corrupting powers of political intervention in police departments and constantly warned against them, wrote a letter to the editor urging Ed Kitchen to hire a chief from within.
When David Wray got the job, Williamson sent him a letter of congratulations and encouragement. He thought the department was on its way to recovery from the setback it had suffered under Robert White.
In the spring of 2004, David Wray sent a car to pick up Williamson and bring him for a tour of the new Public Safety Training Facility on Church Street. Williamson didn't know until he arrived that Wray's real purpose was to conduct a ceremony and present him with the Police Department's Lifetime Achievement Award. Little more than a year later, on May 23, 2005, Williamson died. Wray and "Sticky" Burch spoke at his memorial service.
A week after Williamson's funeral, James Hinson found a tracker on his police vehicle. Wray later said that he was glad that Williamson didn't have to witness the resulting calamity that befell him, other good officers, and the department they all loved.
A couple of years ago, I received a letter from Williamson's daughter in Richmond, Virginia. I think this brief excerpt is a fitting close:
"I have read your series with interest, but with great sadness for what the police force my father helped make excellent has become. I find it so very difficult to believe that no one has the integrity to step forward and do what needs to be done. I feel sadness for those good officers who must try to do their best and what is right in such a corrupt and unjust environment."
Although this marks the end of the Cops in Black & White series, Jerry Bledsoe will continue to write about the Police Department as events warrant.